Date: Feb. 12, 2017
Event: 57th Annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals (Round 1 of 24)
Series: Top Fuel class of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series
Location: Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California
Winner: Leah Pritchett of Don Schumacher Racing
U.S. Army Racing Finish:
Tony Schumacher qualified 5th, lost to Pritchett in the semifinal round.
Antron Brown qualified 3rd, lost to Doug Kalitta in the semifinal round.
Call it a semisweet opening weekend for the U.S. Army driver duo of Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher and Antron Brown, who both reached the semifinal round at the 57th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Speedway in Pomona, California and each finding himself looking ahead with a good measure of confidence at the prospects of bringing the Army its fifth NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world championship in the last six seasons.
Only two other drivers – Leah Pritchett and Doug Kalitta – exhibited more speed during an abbreviated three rounds of qualifying Friday and Saturday, and they turned out to be the only roadblocks that could keep Schumacher and Brown out of Sunday’s final round of eliminations. Pritchett went on to earn her second career event title and the U.S. Army duo of Schumacher and Brown leave Pomona fourth and third, respectively, in the Top Fuel standings.
Schumacher, the eight-time Top Fuel world champion whose last title came in 2014, qualified fifth in his U.S. Army Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) and opened his day with a solid run of 3.709 seconds at 326.08 mph to beat No. 12 qualifier Scott Palmer. He then laid down his fastest career run ever at Pomona – an effort of 3.697 seconds at 325.53 mph – to eliminate a tire-smoking Brittany Force in the second round. That set up his semifinal matchup against DSR teammate Pritchett, the No. 1 qualifier who rose to the occasion with a stout run of 3.687 seconds at 327.43 mph. Schumacher’s Army Dragster appeared to be slightly down on power and he could cross the finish line no quicker than 3.750 seconds at 322.11 mph.
“In the big picture of things, we’re a lot better off after Pomona than we were the last couple of years,” said Schumacher, who lost to Pritchett for only the second time in 10 career meetings, the only other time coming in 2013. “We’re leaving here fourth in the points – already picked up four spots on where we finished last year (laughs). That’s not necessarily something to celebrate for this championship-contending U.S. Army team. But, overall, the Army car went down the track, the crew chiefs have confidence, the guys are doing a great job, the driver’s focused, let’s get to Phoenix. We had a good run, although for some reason we didn’t get all the horsepower this car can make, while Leah made a great run. The two fastest cars at this particular racetrack on this particular weekend made it to the final, so I guess it was fitting. But for us, it’s all good, we’re in a good place. We got through the day, we got through the weekend, we feel good heading to Phoenix. There have been times in my career when I didn’t necessarily want to get to the next race because I wasn’t sure it was going to be the greatest. But I’m looking forward to Phoenix. We’ve had great success there and I’m can’t wait to get there.”
Brown, who qualified third in his Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster for DSR, also opened his day in methodical fashion with a run of 3.742 seconds at 321.35 mph that ousted Steve Chrisman. Brown then needed his signature quick reaction time to be rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. with a holeshot in the second round. Brown clocked in with a run of 3.733 seconds at 325.69 mph to Coughlin’s 3.727 seconds at 327.35 mph, but his reaction time of .03 of a second to Coughlin’s .106 of a second made the difference. Brown advanced to a semifinal matchup against Coughlin’s teammate Kalitta, who had logged runs of better than 3.7 seconds each time he took to the track this weekend. Kalitta did it again against Brown, this time with a run of 3.698 seconds at 331.85 mph that easily beat Brown’s 3.731 seconds at 324.90 mph.
“We’ve been in the final here and in the semis numerous times and we’ve never won the Pomona Winternationals, so this was one race we just wanted to win really badly,” said Brown, who has now advanced to the semifinal round or better at 17 of the last 22 events. “The car is definitely consistent, just not the fastest out here this weekend. This was a wakeup call for me, just to come to the first race and get back in the groove, and we learned that we have more work to do. I’ve got plenty of work to do and us as a team we do, as well. It’s a long season, but it’s not a bad way to start the season out, to make it to the semifinals, being one of the top-four cars, leaving here third in the points. Phoenix is around the corner and we’ll just have to keep pushing hard. Another thing we learned this weekend is that the 60s (3.6-second runs) are here to stay. If you want to have a car to win, you have to run in the 60s. With that being said, you go to work, keep your head down, you know what you’ve got to do, and I feel confident and love the guys I have in my corner and I know they know how to get it down the track – (crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi), Mark (Oswald) and this whole Matco Tools/U.S. Army. Now we head to Phoenix and it’s time to ramp up the game.”
After the first of 24 events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour for 2017, the top-10 drivers in the Top Fuel class are:
1. Leah Pritchett (122 points)
2. Doug Kalitta (105 points, -17)
3. Antron Brown (79 points, -43)
4. Tony Schumacher (70 Points, -52)
5. Brittany Force (57 points, -65)
6. Troy Coughlin Jr. (54 points, -68)
7. Steve Torrence (53 points, -69)
8. Terry McMillen (48 points, -74)
9. Shawn Reed (32 points, -90)
Scott Palmer (32 points, -90)
The next event on the tour is the annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on the outskirts of Phoenix two weeks hence. FS1’s delayed broadcast of elimination rounds Sunday, Feb. 26, is set for 6 p.m. EST.
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